Putting the bite on sharks may not be good for our health.
There are distinct advantages in being at the top of the food chain. Not least the fact that with so many choices between the lower end of the scale and ourselves, we don’t have to eat broccoli if we don’t want to. It’s a system that works well, and one that we’ve refined by successfully exterminating, (or driving to near-extinction), most of our land-based predatory competition.
Taming the world’s oceans has been far more difficult: especially where sharks are concerned. Having evolved into perfect feeding machines over the course of 425 million years the shark’s reputation owes more to fiction than to fact; one that’s become tainted by movies like, “Jaws”, and books with graphic cover blurbs like: “Its grim savagery is horrifying but you will be compelled to remember the dreaded scavenger hungry for human flesh.” (From a book first published in 1959.)
It’s a view of sharks that’s held sway ever since the first caveman toddled off down to the beach for a bit of a paddle and had his toes mistaken for sardines: An honest enough blunder in poor visibility, but one that continues to be exploited by ill-informed alarmists who maintain that, in the kill-or-be-killed world of their imagination, it’s in humanity’s best interest to exterminate all sharks.
Demonstrating a savagery in that regard that makes any shark look like a jellyfish by comparison, the score is definitely in man’s favour. Each year tens of millions of the creatures are fished from the ocean for food or as sport. In some instances the fins, prized as a delicacy, are cruelly sliced from the beasts and their still living bodies thrown back into the water to die and be eaten by their fellows.
Even recreational divers became caught up in the hysteria. Armed with spear guns and power-heads several divers rose to prominence during the ‘sixties and ‘seventies for their exploits in killing sharks by the hundreds. On the eastern seaboard of Australia alone, whole colonies of the Grey Nurse shark, (a fish-eating species falsely reputed to be a ‘man-killer’.), were hunted almost to the point of extinction.
To their credit many of those same divers have since become leading marine conservationists. Swapping spear guns for cameras, they’ve been instrumental in showing us that the only thing we need to fear in the oceans is our own ignorance.
That’s not to suggest that sharks aren’t dangerous. Many of them are, as witnessed by the comparatively recent spate of highly publicised shark attacks on swimmers in the waters off of Florida. Separate tragedies that saw the State’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) overturn dive industry guidelines on inter-action with the marine environment and impose a complete ban on shark diving and the feeding of marine life.
A decision that, paradoxically, received the support of spear fishing groups as well as self-styled ‘environmentalists’, with both factions implying that dive operators conducting organised shark feeds in remote areas were ecological vandals whose practices threatened public safety.
In keeping with that piece of absurdity, the ban fell short of including commercial fishermen using blood and offal to attract sharks; anglers dangling lines with live bait impaled on a hook; or to spear fishermen who – in the wake of the attacks – wantonly slaughtered and beheaded colonies of nurse sharks: Acts that went unremarked by the ‘environmentalists’.
Just to put shark attacks into perspective, in 1999 there were 58 confirmed attacks worldwide with a total of four fatalities. Meanwhile, in the USA alone, road deaths for that same year numbered 41,345.
During 1987, in New York City, 1,587 people received treatment after being bitten by another human whereas, in the whole of the USA, 13 injuries were attributed to shark attacks. Bee stings, snake and spider bites and being hit by lightning exact a greater toll than sharks. And in 1996 when 18 shark attacks were recorded across the country, 43,687 New Yorkers’ sustained injury from interactions with toilet bowls.
And then there’s cancer. A disease that each year accounts for more fatalities than the combined number of shark attacks throughout human history; and one that, according to some researchers, may ultimately be defeated through a better understanding of what it is that makes sharks tick.
All things considered, sharks have received a bum rap from humans. It’s a situation not helped by turning back the clock and resurrecting old myths and fears about them; or by mischievous and false suggestions that responsibly organised shark feeds encourage attacks on humans.
That’s about as intelligent as suggesting that we ban automobiles and toilet bowls.
(The above article first appeared in Asian Diver Magazine in September 2001)